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Austin commuter rail gets smackdown from Forbes

Metro line called “a monument to government waste”

Comparing the experience to what it might be like to visit one of China’s "ghost" cities, urban-issues writer Scott Beyer issued a blistering critique of Capital Metro’s rail service on the Forbes website Friday.

Beyer describes in vivid detail what it’s like to wait at the stop in Leander, void of human life save for him, on a late-summer Saturday (when it’s closed until 4pm) while car traffic hums by steadily on U.S. Highway 183 in the distance; he pronounces the contrast to be emblematic of "the idiocy that has become rail transit policy in urban America."

After explaining why American cities—he cites Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Portland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Cleveland—that attempted to correct their car-heavy commuter systems with rail have failed to make much of an impact (they were built for car traffic), Beyer really pours it on, calling the Capital MetroRail system "perhaps America’s leading rail transit failure." In addition to the fact that rail doesn’t stand a chance in cities where anyone with options can still commute more efficiently by car, he writes that we seem to have all the problems associated with rail-fail country wide, including that they are "run by monopolistic government agencies, meaning they suffer from misappropriations, delays, cost overruns, and poorly planned routes."

Beyer goes on to provide a capsule history of Austin’s long and exhausting rail struggles and controversies from the 1970s on, detailing how the current compromise came about, its terrible ridership numbers, how much it costs taxpayers, and how it hinders the creation of more, better public transit. The article even checks in with local pro-transit, new urbanist group AURA and notes that the sour commuter rail experience most likely helped defeat the next rail proposal to come along, in 2014, by a healthy margin.

Some small, twisted solace might be found in Beyer’s assessment that even cities that have more success introducing rail and have overall better systems still exact a per-rider costs, and thus subsidies. And, while his forceful appeal for marketplace solutions seems to have been sparked by Austin’s ongoing public transportation failures, it would seem that most local government and private players—despite the recent ouster of Uber and Lyft—are probably on the same page at this point.